May 12, 1998
by Townsend Walker
The tragic fate of the century-long clamor among "ordinary" people for universal health care necessitates a fundamental re-evaluation of the American political enterprise. Neither that fate nor that necessity suffices. The repeated replowing of that sterile ground leaves our head reeling, our patience thin, our hopes shattered. The pain is too great to be reconciled any longer to the dictates of polite discourse, or to the strictures of popular wisdom. Nor can we pretend that stratagems short of a political earthquake will alter one iota the callous resolve of a hierarchy of power to maintain the status quo, heedless of the cost in suffering to others -- not only in the matters of health but in whatever struggles people are justifiably engaged in.
Few today speak more eloquently of the dangers besetting us than Istvan Meszaros, author of that important book Beyond Capital: "We live in an age of unprecedented historical crisis...[T]his crisis affects -- for the first time ever in history -- the whole of humankind, calling for quite fundamental changes to the way in which the social metabolism is controlled if humanity is to survive."
But oddly, even when the idea of crisis is laid before us in such explicit nakedness and our better judgment acknowledges that, yes, the very center of mankind's universal social being is disintegrating before our eyes, we go about our daily tasks like some dumb leaden-minded beast that thinks this danger, too, will pass. One battles the health-care predators. Another wages war against environmental depredations. Others rail against an out-of-control population explosion. Some war with the warmongers. Comrades in all this, we fail to recognize the obvious. We are all united by an invisible bond in our opposition to evils endemic to capitalism, yet strangely and ineffectually isolated from one another. "Anarchy is loosed upon the world."
Yet when we put aside the conventional wisdom in search of a strategy for coping with this "unprecedented historical crisis" we are told this is the end of history -- only the way of capitalism matters. Put in another way, "the aristocracy of the Moneybag" is telling us that ours is not to reason why but to adapt to capitalism or die -- a lie harder to bear than the truth.
Think back to any issue-oriented meeting you've attended over the years -- it matters not whether the meeting was about health care, ecology, labor, justice, etc. Invariably, in our experience, the controlling assumption brought to the discussion (invisible and unarticulated but there) turns on the necessity of operating within the constraints imposed by capitalism.
Amazingly, we who constitute the great American voting public have bowed silently before this unholy preachment so long we no longer have the vocabulary to voice our opposition. That, or having it, too circumspect or timorous to insist that capitalism, placed in ecological perspective, runs counter to common sense and has become, in the century now ending, a threat to the foundations of human existence.
In this dark hour of crisis, however, there are intellectual stirrings, faint but there, suggesting that homo sapiens may yet marshal the courage to challenge the capitalist order and reverse the havoc it has wrought. Before that can happen, however, we must grasp what the captains of capitalism have also failed to comprehend. We must understand that the material conditions of human existence hang by a hair under the reign of capitalism and that, like the ecological disasters that destroyed ancient dinosaurs and indigenous people of islands in the south Pacific, we too stand to become an extinct species. The most significant of these restless stirrings appeared in the October 20/27 issue of the widely read magazine that has become a publishing institution in its own right -- The New Yorker.
In his article "The Return of Karl Marx," John Cassidy argues that Marx was right about capitalism and that "his books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures" -- this after a successful Wall Street investor friend remarked, "The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right." Electrified, I re-read Marx and Engel's Manifesto from an old literature text book I used when an undergraduate at a southern state college in the 1940s. Underlinings and marginal notes from more than a half century ago scored the reactions of a young man intent on taking up graduate studies leading to the ministry. It became clear that I had identified much of the Manifesto with the social indignation and ethical pronouncements of the Judeo-Christian literature bespeaking the prophetic mind. It also became clear, as I now proceded to study the origins of the Manifesto and the two authors' own later criticism of their earlier work, that Americans are egregiously misinformed about what Marx and Engels actually wrote -- and ignorant of the elasticity of their thinking and the historical circumstances of their early literary output.
For example, in the Preface to the 1872 German edition they pointed out that "the practical applications of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing." Indeed, that memorable document "would, in many respects, be very differently worded today (i.e., in 1872)." In a word, the pillars of the capitalist order (especially in the U.S. it seems to me) have taken from Marx and Engel that self-critical generosity of spirit and intellectual grasp of the historical process that enabled them to stand apart from their own works and acknowledge their, too, all too humanness when the occasion required. These capitalist pillars have labored hard for more than a century, but especially during the post-World War II period, to discredit and misrepresent the real persons behind the Manifesto, and their earlier and later works.
It is these distortions that Americans must overcome before they can comprehend Cassidy's thesis that Marx was right about capitalism -- and go from there to Engel's view that "our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction...All history must be studied afresh before...deducing the political, civil-law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc. views corresponding to them" (emphasis added)
Cassidy suggests that "perhaps the most enduring element of Marx's work is his discussion of where power lies in a capitalist society." Sifting through the Manifesto, I have identified several passages which support Cassidy's conclusion and at the same time illustrate the genius of the unadulterated young Marx. I pass them on here without commentary, leaving it to the reader to judge to what extent they comport with reality and should be allowed to influence working-class political strategies in the future. (Numbers in parentheses refer to the page number in the Monthly Review Press's centenary edition of the Manifesto, still available in paperback.)
I. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles...Oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another...a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." (2)
II. "Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." (41)
III. "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors' and has left remaining no other bond between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous 'cash payment'....It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom, Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." (51)
IV. "The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers." (6)
V. "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguishes the bourgeoisie epoch from all earlier ones....All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face...his real conditions of life." (7)
VI. "The ruling idea of each age have ever been the ideas of the ruling class." (37)
VII. ",,,[T]he first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy." (39)
VIII. "The modern laborer,...instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society, as an overriding law....Society can no longer live under the bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society." (231)
IX. "The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeoisic class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests exclusively on competition between laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their involuntary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry therefore cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." (24)
X. "The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs. But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves with certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms." (38)
XI. "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities (e.g., the rise of the bourgeoisie, i.e., the ruling capitalist). The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole...official society being sprung into the air." (22)
What have we done here? Only this: to help our readers understand how thoroughly we all have been deprived of points of views that must very quickly become part of public discourse if we are to survive the "unprecedented historical crisis" of which Istvan Meszaros warns us. We have done so because John Cassidy's thesis that Karl Marx was right about capitalism seems to us eminently sound. It strikes us also as highly germane to the duty of elevating the principle of cooperation to a pre-eminent position over the anarchic forces of merciless competition so inordinately unleashed on mankind by the spirit of capitalism. The systematic exclusion of Cassidy's thesis -- and Marx's theoretical thinking -- from public discourse in American life has created an intellectual vacuum where rational debate is virtually impossible. The result: the wool has been pulled over our eyes so long that we accept our blindness as our natural state; we have lived by the lie so devoutly we mistake lies for truth -- and truth for subversive activity.
The American propaganda machine has inaugurated a new inquisitional age in which fear rules. Few of the brightest among us dare recognize publicly the parallel between their thinking and that of Marx on the destructive nature of capitalism. Consider this from Cassidy's New Yorker article: "Globalization is set to become the biggest political issue of the next century....Even economists...are now having second thoughts about its impact. Contemporary critics tend to use drier language than Marx did, but their message is similar. "The international integration of markets for goods, services, and capital is pressuring societies to alter their traditional practices, and in return, broad segments of these societies are putting up a fight," writes Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economist in a pathbreaking book published earlier this year. Rodrik pointed out that child labor, corporate tax avoidance, and shuttered American factories are all features of globalization. He didn't mention Marx directly -- citations of his work are not good for the career prospects of an Ivy League economist -- but he concluded that failure to meet the global challenge could lead to 'social disintegration.'" (Italics added)
If Cassidy was right about Marx -- that Marx was right about capitalism -- and Mezzaros and Rodrik are right about "historical crisis" and "social disintegration," it seems also right that Marx might have correctly concluded that the only alternative to capitalism are "socialism or barbarism" -- that or total extinction.
by Townsend Walker
Let's revisit John Cassidy's New Yorker article "The Return of Karl Marx" once more. As Cassidy nibbled away during his August vacation at Marxian plums such as "Theories of Surplus Value" and "The Manifesto of the Communist Party," he began to comprehend what his Wall Street investor friend meant when he said "There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model. I am absolutely convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism." In his own words, Cassidy tells us: "I gradually began to grasp what my friend had been talking about. In many ways, Marx's legacy has been obscured by the failure of Communism, which wasn't his primary interest. In fact, he had little to say about how a socialist society should operate, and what he did write, about the withering away of the state and so on, wasn't very helpful....Marx was a student of capitalism, and that is how he should be judged. Many of the contradictions that he saw in Victorian capitalism and that were subsequently addressed by reformist governments have begun reappearing in new guises, like mutant viruses. When he wasn't driving the reader to distraction, he wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence -- issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realizing that they are walking in Marx's footsteps."
Americans instinctively shy away from the taboo subject that Marx has become after decades of brainwashing. I admit to being uneasy myself, as the editors of The New Yorker might have felt in publishing Cassidy's article, or Cassidy in writing it. So why do we do it? and why are we frightened in a land defined by the shibboleths of freedom and democracy? Isn't it because those who control any society are prone either to etherealize into an unreal world (as with a Moses or Jesus or Jefferson) the primal movers of that society? or to demonize to a mythical hell (as with Marx or Lenin or Du Bois) those whose ideas clash with the interests of the superprivileged? Is not the fault in ourselves that we allow our silence to embolden a very small minority to dictate the personalities whose ideas are acceptable in public debate, and whose are not?
There is much ado about "A National Bill of Patients' Rights" these days to compensate for the harm done to patients by managed competition. Whatever good may come from it notwithstanding, it's a political sop thrown to consumers to make them think their politicians really care about then when in fact those same politicians are the culprits responsible for the mess we are in. (For example, only one person in the Alabama Congressional delegation, Earl Hilliard, has supported a universal health-care system). The President's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in Health Care Industry is little more than a deceptive political ploy, as are his portability scheme and the extension of Medicare to under-65s. Ethicist George Annas, writing in the March 5 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, said it best: "The core of patients' rights is the right to receive care from an accountable physician who shares all relevant information with the patient and guarantees the patient the right to make the final decision about treatment. The patient must be able to trust the physician to act honestly and in the patient's best interest. Loyalty to the patient also requires that the physician act as an advocate for the patient when the treatment the physician believes is most appropriate is not covered by the patient's health plan or insurer. Only provisions that honor and reinforce a physician-patient relationship based on trust deserve to be designated patients' rights."
The five core provision of any federal bill of rights, according to Annas, are:
In my opinion, the problem of patients' rights has been largely resolved when doctor and patient see eye-to-eye on Annas' practical observations. Moreover, mutuality of understanding on these vital principles can contribute in time to shared appreciation of the human dimension of the patient-doctor relationship.
Townsend Walker of Huntsville, Alabama has been an activist for universal health care since his retirement twenty-two years ago, and now edits New Voices/New Vision in that connection.